Update from Chief Batton: Sept. 28, 2020

Updates from Chief Batton

It's been a while since I spoke with you last about the work of our Sovereignty for Strong Communities Commission that is focused on jurisdictional ideas for our reservation. Our subcommittees are in a research phase, and are compiling data for the commission's review. We're not hurrying them along, because we want to get this right.

You may find this stage of the process a little quiet. We're turning from the exciting days of summer, following the Supreme Court's ruling in the case of McGirt v. Oklahoma, and are busy learning what we need to know and do. Right now the devil is in the details, and we're accumulating as many details as we can.

Good Information Makes Good Decisions

What we're working to establish is a baseline for expanding our sovereignty while making sure implementation is cost effective. On one end of the scale is the situation as it was before July, and at the other end of the scale is the scenario presented by much greater sovereignty. To some degree it's an elective scenario in terms of the scope and extent. The second scenario could be very expensive, judging by what we've seen so far. Still, it's good to know, to help us form the basis of sound decisions. We're working to build a firmer picture.

I don't think what we do concerning sovereignty should be solely a financial decision, but we definitely need to know how much the options will cost. It doesn't just come down to money, of course… our pride, traditions, history, and our future should also be considered. I always use a 100-year timeline when I consider what might be best for our people—we are an ancient people—and this will give us valuable perspective for something as important as sovereignty.

I've asked the team to examine what some of the tribes in other states are doing in relation to state/federal relations and sovereignty. Some of them already have arrangements in place that allow them to operate highway patrols, regional law enforcement, and exercise other aspects of sovereignty. We'll conduct interviews over the next few weeks with about 18 tribes outside of Oklahoma to see what they're doing, what we may be able to do, and get cost comparisons.

Outreach from the State

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter reached out to us, and I've now spoken with him. He was urging me to consider an opportunity for a compact with the state, and/or federal legislation, in the near-term, which I declined. I explained that we currently have opportunities to utilize our sovereignty, and see no need to push for legislation of any kind at this time. The Attorney General suggested the early bird gets the worm and felt momentum was building for this, but I disagree. I won't be opposed to it if we find it helpful. We should proceed with caution and take this step by step.

I invited the Attorney General to join us for a sovereignty commission meeting, and he's doing so this week. We'd like him to fill us in regarding the state's outreach to other tribes, and the state's cross-deputization arrangements with the Creek Nation.

Beefing Up Our Legal and Law Enforcement Capabilities

We got a large response for the 10 jobs we posted for additional Tribal Law Enforcement officers. There was a lot of interest out there from prospective candidates. We've also posted seven new child welfare social worker positions—six field workers and one supervisor—and those postings are still up. We also have public prosecutor jobs posted. We plan on posting new positions for public defenders, but aren't quite ready for this yet.

An important part of exercising sovereignty in the legal and law enforcement realms will mean having full-fledged regulatory codes. We've completed drafts of our Prosecutor's Code and amendments to the existing Criminal Code and Criminal Procedures Code. This includes amendments to the Juror Code and Public Defenders Act. We hope to finalize these shortly—hopefully in time for Tribal Council to consider them during its October meeting.

With the opening of our new Judicial Center we rolled out state-of-the-art technology for judicial proceedings, court filings, and related needs. A lot of this means tribal members, wherever they live, have immediate access to the court system. But some things need to be done in person, and we're looking at remodeling one of our locations in Talihina, where we already have a court clerk. We may establish another court house there, to serve the northern counties in our reservation.

Placement and disposition of inmates is something we need to look at. In the short term, or maybe permanently, we can partner with the counties and reimburse them for the costs. The Nation already has agreements in place with county jails to house inmates for fee per day, but the Nation is prosecuting the defendants. If we deepen and extend these arrangements, we want to make sure the county jails meet our standards. We'll also meet with a private prison regarding potential long-term use.

Fishing and Hunting Compact

Our Fishing and Hunting Compact with the state will be up for renewal at the end of the year, and we need to decide whether to renew, revise, or do something completely different. There are costs involved with each option, of course, and some of them are high. We put in place a Hunting and Fishing Code last year which may also need revising, depending on the option we go with. There are lots of moving parts to this question and our legal and government relations teams are analyzing each of them. We will have our decision and plan in place by January 1 because the compact ends December 31.

Indian Child Welfare Act

Child welfare is something that many people don't think very often about, because compared with some of our other programs, it serves relatively few people. But these tribal members can use our assistance, and we're intent on seeing them through to a better kind of life.

With this in mind, we've executed a new Indian Child Welfare Agreement between the Choctaw Nation and the state. The new agreement is a significant advancement over the way we've always done things, in which we were required to take a back seat to the state. The new agreement acknowledges and expands our sovereignty over cases involving Indian children within our reservation, while allowing for concurrent jurisdiction with Oklahoma.

Our new agreement will prevent cases from being dismissed for lack of state court jurisdiction—a pending issue that prompted us to take quick action—and allows us to choose if we want to utilize the state's services for cases if we determine appropriate. It is reasons (and results) like this one that make me think we can handle almost everything through a series of compacts or agreements, without any need for congressional legislation.

I know this is a lot of information but hope you find it helpful. Yakoke and God bless you and the Choctaw Nation.

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